- Purchase/rental options available:
Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.1 (2000) 125-126
[Access article in PDF]
Ideas and Mechanism is a record of remarkable scholarship. It collects thirty-one essays by one of the most influential scholars in early modern philosophy. (Wilson herself did most of the editing, though Anne Jaap Jacobson brought the book to completion after Wilson's death.) All but one of essays have been published previously. (The one new essay is "The Issue of 'Common Sensibles' in Berkeley's New Theory of Vision." There is also an essay on "True and Immutable Natures" previously published only in Portuguese.) Many are classics, united here with essays less well known. The collection begins with "Skepticism without Indubitability," an application of Wilson's scholarly might to Rorty's criticisms of the early modern legacy of foundationalism. Chapters 2-8 focus on Descartes. Several of these emphasize Descartes's accounts of sensation and representation. Chapters 9-12 discuss Spinoza. Then follows Wilson's influential essay on "Superadded Properties" and her related response to M. R. Ayers. Chapter 15-21 comprise an extended defense of Berkeley. The book ends with a long essay on the role of history of philosophy and a brief essay on animal ideas.
In her essays, Wilson does not limit herself to one side of the classic divide between empiricists and rationalists. She succeeds in this ambitious endeavor by focusing on a problem common to both: the relation between mechanistic science and early modern views of ideas. Wilson is concerned with how philosophers' scientific views bear on their metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind. This involves, in many cases, showing how philosophical positions take on new meaning as one considers the science underlying them. For example, Descartes's repeated claims that primary qualities "resemble" qualities in bodies are not taken to imply that any particular extension one sees is in a body. Extension in general, on which mechanistic explanations are based, is in bodies; color (and even perceived extension) is reducible by scientific explanation. The emphasis on the role of science also furnishes a platform for attention to neglected works. Wilson is exemplary in drawing from a wide range of texts to elucidate familiar points. In essays on Descartes and Berkeley, Wilson shows how their works on vision in particular enrich discussions of their epistemology. (One unfortunate limitation to Wilson's emphasis on mechanistic science is a neglect of political and theological works. Thus, she neglects to investigate the implications of, say, Spinoza's work in politics on his metaphysical views about man.)
Of particular note is Wilson's defense of Berkeley. Wilson does not draw lines in terms of empiricists (Locke and Berkeley) and rationalists (Leibniz). Instead, she argues that Berkeley's defense of the common sense view that "physical things are as they are perceived" provides an alternative to the scientific realisms of Locke, Leibniz, and Kant. Defenders of Locke, for example, have claimed that Berkeley was insufficiently attentive to the role of mechanistic science in Locke's justifications of the primary-secondary distinction. Wilson shows how Berkeley took these Lockean arguments into account and why he objects to them. Rather than being a cure-all that saves Locke from Berkeley, the role of mechanistic science in his philosophy implicates Locke in the scientific realism against which Berkeley consistently defends common sense. [End Page 125]
Not all of the essays directly relate to ideas and mechanism. Several deal with the closely related issue of mind-body interaction. One essay explains the epistemological argument for mind-body dualism in Descartes and another attacks Spinoza's account of mind and body. Wilson also writes on more general themes in Leibniz, such as necessity and contingency, causality, and confused and distinct ideas. She spends two chapters on the relationship between animals and humans. In one, she challenges appropriations of Spinoza that find in him the appealing view that there is no "radical ontological chasm" between humans and...